Completed by the Spirit Part 11: Not of the Letter, But of the Spirit

Ed Trefzger

Ed Trefzger

This is the 11th part of a series of posts adapted from a paper I pre­sented at a New Covenant The­ol­ogy think tank in upstate New York in July 2010.

There is one more pas­sage in which Paul speaks against the law for sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, and that is 2 Corinthi­ans 3. It is per­haps the most spe­cific com­par­i­son between a law of let­ters and of the Spirit – the γράμμα/πνε̣̣ῦμα antithesis.

[1] Are we begin­ning to com­mend our­selves again? Or do we need, as some do, let­ters of rec­om­men­da­tion to you, or from you? [2] You your­selves are our let­ter of rec­om­men­da­tion, writ­ten on our hearts, to be known and read by all. [3] And you show that you are a let­ter from Christ deliv­ered by us, writ­ten not with ink but with the Spirit of the liv­ing God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

[4] Such is the con­fi­dence that we have through Christ toward God. [5] Not that we are suf­fi­cient in our­selves to claim any­thing as com­ing from us, but our suf­fi­ciency is from God, [6] who has made us com­pe­tent to be min­is­ters of a new covenant, not of the let­ter but of the Spirit. For the let­ter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Cor 3:1–6)

Verse 6, the com­par­i­son between the let­ter and the Spirit, is often used to con­trast the inef­fec­tive­ness of the Mosaic law against the power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ. And indeed, the con­text of the fol­low­ing verses in which the “min­istry of death, carved in let­ters on stone,” clearly refer­ring to the tablets given at Sinai as opposed to the min­istry of the Spirit, sug­gests a com­par­i­son between the Deca­logue and the Holy Spirit given to believers.

New Covenant Morality In Paul

But the letter/Spirit antithe­sis actu­ally goes fur­ther. It is not only the Deca­logue – the law which is indeed “holy and right­eous and good” (Rom 7:12) accord­ing to Paul – which is inef­fec­tive. It is any exter­nal code, any exter­nal effort what­so­ever that does not rely upon the Spirit of God for transformation.

T. J. Dei­dun advances that propo­si­tion in his dis­cus­sion of 2 Corinthi­ans 3:

Now we may safely pre­sup­pose that Paul did not arrive at the con­clu­sion that the γράμμα ‘kills’ by way of anthro­po­log­i­cal reflec­tion on the effect that law has on man. It is the [C]hristian expe­ri­ence of the life-giving Spirit as escha­to­log­i­cal new­ness that enables Paul to see that only the Spirit brings life and hence only the ‘new cre­ation’ effected by the Spirit can bring man from death to life and from sin to [jus­ti­fi­ca­tion]. The pri­mary datum of [C]hristian expe­ri­ence is not that the γράμμα ‘kills’ (that is a sub­se­quent infer­ence) but that the Spirit (and only the Spirit) [gives life].[1]

It is impor­tant to note that nei­ther Dei­dun, nor this author, are advo­cat­ing for a moral­ity that is devoid of any exter­nal imper­a­tives. Those imper­a­tives – grounded in the indica­tive of the believer’s posi­tion in Christ and as a tem­ple for His Spirit – are indeed nec­es­sary on this side of glory while we remain imper­fect. Indeed, Dei­dun remarks, “even in the [C]hristian econ­omy exter­nal imper­a­tives are to be seen chiefly as a sign of imper­fect lib­er­a­tion. …”[2]

As our series con­tin­ues, we shall see how Paul uses imper­a­tives, com­mands and exhor­ta­tions in coop­er­a­tion with the Spirit to encour­age our growth in holiness.

But those imper­a­tives are not the exter­nal code of a for­mer covenant that failed to pro­duce right­eous­ness. It is that exter­nal code of death that pro­duced sin in the flesh of the unre­gen­er­ate Paul. It is that exter­nal code of death that was given to increase trans­gres­sion until Christ came. It is that exter­nal code of death that the Judaiz­ers wanted to impose upon the Gala­tians who had been run­ning well and now were stumbling.

And it is that exter­nal code of death that is the antithe­sis of a life in the Spirit.

Next: Com­pleted by the Spirit Part 12: Love is the Ful­fill­ing of the Law


[1] T. J. Dei­dun, New Covenant Moral­ity in Paul (Rome: Editrice Pon­tif­ico Isti­tuto Bib­lico, 1981, 2006), 206. Eng­lish is sub­sti­tuted in the brack­ets the author’s Greek for clarity.

[2] Ibid., 209.